Portrait of an (Nonfiction) Artist (continued)

Death is the backdrop for "The Bridge" (1964) as well, Talese's second volume drawn from his work as a "Times" reporter. On 1 January 1959 he wrote the first of 11 stories on New York bridges which came to focus on the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linking Brooklyn to Staten Island ("Bay Ridge Seethes over Bridge"). "If you watch a great construction project, the building of a bridge or a skyscraper, you see this magnificent work being done at high altitudes-and sometimes at great peril," Talese explained in a 1984 interview. "I knew books had been written about bridges, but never about the people who built them, the obscure people we see from a distance only in silhouette." From the shore's edge Talese watched barges carrying loads of steel, and as he watched he wanted to know what it was like to be a bridge builder, "to be up there courting danger while building something that is going to outlive you, as all great bridges outlive the people who create them." Talese returned to the bridge site again and again during 1960. Eventually he decided to spend all his free time in the next three years, not only watching the miraculous work being done with steel and cable, but becoming acquainted with the men who so adroitly performed this remarkable feat.

From early l960 to late l962, Talese practiced what he calls "the fine art of hanging out." "I was so regularly in attendance at the bridge in my off hours and vacations from "The Times" that I was practically considered one of the staff of U.S. Steel," he recalls. Talese read all the books he could find on bridge building-and on famous bridges and bridge builders. He interviewed O. H. Ammann, the designer of this new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then the largest suspension bridge in the world, and he walked across the narrow beams, wobbling in the wind, to feel firsthand the danger. Talese spent so much time with the bridge builders that he was invited to their homes, even to the homes of the Native Americans who would race 100 miles an hour on Friday evenings to reach the Caughnawaga reservation near Montreal.

"The Bridge" can be read as a bridge builders' manual. At the same time Talese records the recurring injuries and death inherent in the romantic, daring lifestyle of these American macho heroes. The ten chapters comprising this volume offer Talese's first extensive exploration of what will be an obsessive subject for him during his next twenty-eight years: the parental legacy. Whether writing of bridge builders, celebrities, "The New York Times", Italian immigration and the Mafia, or sexual pioneers, Talese tends to be drawn toward the parent-child relation. In these works he expands the specific dilemma of how to honor's one's father in a changing age to the larger question of how to honor the national spirit, the American dream of our "forefathers", in a similarly changing and diminished era. Thus the individual psychodramas of Talese's subjects become the national psychodramas of us all.

Bridge builders literally "span" the nation and regard themselves, Talese tells us, as "the last of America's unhenpecked heroes" (3). In "The Bridge" Talese stresses the difficulty sons experience trying to escape the dangerous family tradition of bridge building. Chapter 6 is titled "Death on the Bridge," and here Gerard McKee, a handsome popular youth from a "boomer" family, falls to his death from the Verrazano span. Gerard has two brothers who are also boomers, and his father-"a man whom Gerard strongly resembled-had been hit by a collapsing crane a few years before, had had his leg permanently twisted, had a steel plate inserted in his head, and was disabled for life" (84). Of all the mourners at Gerard's funeral this father suffers most: "'After what I've been through,' he said, shaking his head with tears in his eyes, 'I should know enough to keep my kids off the bridge'." (92).

But McKee doesn't, and "The Bridge" ends with another son's death on the next bridge project. Talese's title explicitly links his vision of the nation with Hart Crane's in his famous poem of the same name. Both works proffer the bridge as a symbol of hope for a permanent spanning to some national ideal, and yet both show the negations that in the present somehow keep us from achieving Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" prophecy. Death, failure, or, at best, a short-lived success are the fates of the sons of bridge builders. A further irony of Talese's title is that a bridge is created to take one someplace, yet, as Talese suggests through the boomer song he quotes for the final line of his volume, the bridge builders are "linking everything but their lives."

With only one exception, reviewers were unanimous in their praise of "The Bridge". "The Library Journal" found the work "steeped in man's dreams, glowing with man's humanity" (15 November 1964). It praised Talese's "loving detail and . . . delightful style." Herbert Mitgang called the volume "vibrant" in the "New York Times Book Review", noting the drama and romance Talese imparted to the story (17 January 1965). "The Booklist" praised the black and white Bruce Davidson photographs and delicate Lili Rethi drawings which illustrated Talese's text. "The New Yorker" also praised these illustrations. It alone, however, faulted Talese's focus. "The author tells something, but not nearly enough, of the problems and triumphs of modern bridge design, scanting the technical side of a great technological achievement in favor of anecdotes about the constuction workers' risks and daring, which are, after all, fairly apparent," the reviewer stated.

Talese's hometown newspaper, the Ocean City "Sentinel-Ledger", however, found "The Bridge" a better book than "New York-A Serendipiter's Journey" (26 November 1964). "The Bridge" showed Talese could handle extended narrative-even sequential narration-as well as weave together serendipitous moments. He followed "The Bridge" with "The Overreachers" (1965), a collection of twelve articles previously published in "Esquire", "The Saturday Evening Post", and "The New York Times Magazine", capped by an evocation of New York through the changing seasons. For this third volume, Talese took his title from Ernest Hemingway who described "overreachers" as those who "take that extra step, climb too high, lean too far, go too fast, get too grabby with the gods." A prophetic piece on George Plimpton and the "Paris Review" set titled "Looking for Hemingway" was included in the volume as were Talese's now classic portraits of Floyd Patterson ("The Loser"), Joe Louis ("The King as a Middle-Aged Man"), and Joshua Logan ("The Soft Psyche of Joshua Logan").